#findingSwansea – a celebratory archival response
This project was born out of a discussion during the recent Friends of the Glynn Vivian board consultation on the current and potential future role of the Friends. Following the lengthy pandemic lockdown, there was an increasing pressure on institutions such as the Glynn Vivian to make their collections more accessible to the wider community, particularly in the digital realm. We felt that there was a huge cultural potential stored within archives that rarely gets to see the light of day. Given that the role of the FOGV is to support the Gallery, to support learning activities and to encourage appreciation of the arts, it seemed like a good idea to try to find a way to help to bring the archive out of it’s boxes and on to an online platform, whilst adding the experience, passion and personalities of the Friends members along the way.
The idea is that the Friends will select an object from the Glynn Vivian collection connected to a seasonal theme, and collectively produce a portfolio of interpretation material based around this – this can take the form of oral history, social history, artistic response, etc. – we are interested not only in adding artistic knowledge to the object, but bringing the art into a broader cultural relevance through positioning it alongside the social history of Swansea, and Wales at that time. By doing this, we hope to add to the digital resources of the Glynn Vivian by helping to digitise the archive and connect it to wider interest groups.
We are seeking both to create a repository of primary documentary sources that can aid scholars and aficionados in their research and appreciation of the archive, and to produce a vital contemporary artistic response to prove the ongoing relevance of the Gallery collection.
Finding Swansea team member, Benesek Monk, shares an extract from an old dissertation proposal considering the relationship between humanity, nature and art.
Biophilia is the innate tendency to project ourselves into nature. I contend that this stems from a deep seated disconnect in our perception of what nature is and how we relate to it. This false separation of self from the world leads to what Timothy Morton refers to in his book, Ecology without Nature, thus: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.” (Morton, 2007:5) It is the collective attempt by man to manage nature that has led to our current state of ecological crisis. Everything from fossil fuels and mining to animal husbandry and environmental conservation are symptomatic of this. There is a constant philosophical clash within the environmental movement regarding conservation - attempting to hold a dynamic system in a static state does seem like a perverse position for those who claim to hold a deep affection for, and knowledge of, the land - a very neat example of Morton’s sadistic admiration. Whilst it’s already become a cliché to talk about the ecological impact of industrialisation and capitalism, what’s less commonly acknowledged is the symptomatic representation of the same mode of thinking within culture. Celebrated environmental artists such as David Nash still produce their work through a direct imposition of their will onto the world around them.
Works such as his Ash Dome (Atlas Obscura, 2018) are the perfect example of man’s drive to make his mark on the world. The deliberate thigmomorphogenic act to create an artificial pattern from a natural process is not so dissimilar from the actions of the groundskeeper on a golf course, yet removed to a secret, natural location, and therefore removed from any pretence of access or functionality, the work can exist as a meditation on man’s relationship with the world; whilst perpetuating the same flawed attitude toward it. In his book, Being Ecological, Morton proposes the term anticipatory fear in his analogy of Ecological PTSD as a factor within the climate change debate. “The PTSD sufferer, Freud argued, is simply trying to install herself, through her dreams, at a point in time before the trauma happened. Why? Because there is some safety or security in being able to anticipate. Anticipatory fear is far less intense than the fear you experience when finding yourself, all of a sudden, in the middle of a trauma” - (Morton, 2018:14) He draws a parallel between this tendency for humans to seek a false sense of control rather than face a traumatic reality with the relative collective inaction and preference for prevarication and debate in the face of the daunting facts regarding the impact of human activity on a global scale. Interestingly, he goes on to discuss the ubiquity of the picturesque landscape as the most popular image in the world. Connecting the components of the landscape to the symbolic meeting of primitive needs (representations of sources of food, water, shelter, etc.), Morton concludes: “The picturesque is keyed to a fundamental human-centred way of looking at things: it is anthropocentric.” (Morton, 2018:24)
It follows therefore that our most common and popular visual representation in culture is a codified image of security and control - a sop to primitive anxieties, a pre-emptive balm to calm those discomforted by the friction of urban life. The application of the anthropocentric to assuage the angst of the Anthropocene. Moving from the romantic to the postmodern, artists working with landscape such as Gursky and Christo still fall within the overarching primacy of man.
At one level, it could be argued that Gursky’s erasure of the urban landscape from Rhine II is an act rooted in a kind of primitivism, that extols the virtue of a nature untainted by man. It resonates with the picturesque, meeting many of the criteria one would look for in a classically pleasing landscape image (Tate, 2018). The geometry and manicured nature of the elements retained, however, serve as palimpsests pointing still to the need to assert control, to shape nature to a more palatable aesthetic.
Christo in his wrapping of the landscape, proffers a simple action layered with possibilities for interpretation (Claude, 2018). He is simultaneously making his mark on the land, erasing what was there before, wrapping the land as a gift implying and imbuing ideas of ownership, value and commoditisation (ownership without the ability to separate oneself would count more as stewardship) and mimicking an act of protection both functional and absurd – it protects the landscape from the elements – a counterintuitive act that finds pragmatic realisation through items as mundane as the greenhouse or the umbrella (if one counts oneself as a part of the landscape).
Reference List Books: Morton, T. (2018). Being ecological. Penguin. Morton, T. (2007). Ecology without nature. Harvard University Press. Websites: Atlas Obscura. (2018). Ash Dome. [online] Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ash-dome [Accessed 9 May 2018]. Claude, C. (2018). Christo & Jeanne Claude. [online] Artsy-inspirations.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://artsy-inspirations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/christo-jeanne-claude.html [Accessed 9 May 2018]. Museum, V., 2022. Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead | Constable, John (RA) | V&A Explore The Collections. [online] Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Available at: <https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O84528/branch-hill-pond-hampstead-oil-painting-constable-john-ra/> [Accessed 9 May 2018]. Tate. (2018). ‘The Rhine II’, Andreas Gursky, 1999 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gursky-the-rhine-ii-p78372 [Accessed 9 May 2018].
Artist and finding Swansea team member, Benesek Monk, offers a ruminative photographic response.
As a photographer, I lean towards the school of thought that colour is a distraction. It can carry layers of constructed meaning that have nothing to do with the intended reading of the image. I prefer images that focus on line and form. There is also an argument that runs that the representation of colour in a photographic image will never be a full reproduction of the original - there will always be a technological deficiency. As Ansel Adams, the master of black and white landscape photography, said, “he could get “a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than [he had] ever achieved with color photography”.
I’m fortunate to be able to cycle to work along the sea front at a time that coincides at this point in the year with the sunrise. A few weeks ago, the conditions were perfect, with the first frost forming on the fallen leaves and the sun just cresting the horizon, that despite my general aversion to colour, I had to stop and take a picture with my phone.
Upon downloading it to my computer later, it appeared on my desktop next to a thumbnail of John Piper’s Swansea West. I was immediately struck by the similarity in the spectra of colour.
One of the reasons I was attracted to photography was my desire to create images coupled with my total ineptitude at drawing or painting. I am often awestruck by the skill of those people that are able to conjure images purely by hand. A camera is simply a machine that captures visual information - this, for me, is the craft of photography - how well one is able to use the tool to capture the desired information. The art of photography is concerned with what is then done with that information, for example, how it is further manipulated, contextualised and presented.
Piper’s ability to capture and express the light over Swansea is a superlative demonstration of both art and craft.
A visual response from finding Swansea team member, artist and nonceptualist, Jeremy Gluck.
A creative response from finding Swansea team member, artist and nonceptualist, Jeremy Gluck.
No-swansea: The story that I am trying to write myself out of is one that I am not even part of Ground zero-one and this is not even where Swansea begins. The first time that I saw Three Cliffs Bay it removed part of someone me and installed part of someone else. Years later, but not many, I spent numerous nights on the Bay, walking with a friend, by torchlight surrounded by legion presences. Ghosts of princes in towers, ghost riders, heavy pressure energy fields, noisy sprites, breaking branches, and brooding beings all there, the gate beneath the castle shooting us into and out of the place. Heavy energy into the heart, pushing the chest from the inside. That is one story. And the city. When I arrived pre-dystopian, mostly poor before Pennard, a bolt-on lapsed Lego construction of lives. Fresh from London, it struck cold, unintelligible from accent to accent, tumbling from mouths like wet slate. On the Gower, where I was blessed to land, after years near Kings Cross, the local beaches and woods ate me. Lying on the ground in that great stand of trees, making out the sky through the screens, feeling something real holding me up. That was the land and city I arrived to and, over time, surrendered to. July morning early on the Bay, alone, in the sun, the power of that world drove me home, a mute witness to my smallness loving but warning me off its endless orbit. These are all things that can’t be understood but rip you up. A Canon later, daily dawn rides by Swansea Bay documenting sunrise after sunrise. Shoes wet, eyes stripped by light, too close to the tide, image after image after image, thousands, years of images. The drug of the light and the sea, the sand, the dead fish and dead wood, the trash and entire trees drunk on sea water and wind. I don’t have time for landscape. I found Swansea at last entire, a city on the edge of itself, where the skies descended to touch me, a creation of the Divine that made the seasons for me, one word in the sentence.
We asked artist and printmaker, Rosie Scribblah, how a screen print is actually made.
John Piper was a 20th century landscape artist who developed many of his paintings into screenprints and lithographs. This famous view of Swansea in watercolour became an edition of silkscreen prints as well. Silkscreen printing was invented by Chinese artists almost 2,000 years ago and was advanced by the Japanese who used paper stencils and screens made from human hair! It was taken up in Europe in the 1600s to print fabric and became very popular as an art form in the 1960s with POP artists like Sir Peter Blake and Andy Warhol. A screenprint is made by making a stencil for every colour in the image. These stencils are put onto silkscreens, so if there are 6 colours, there will be 6 stencils and 6 screens. Then each stencil is printed, one on top of another. Contemporary Swansea artist Sarah Hopkins has done many views of Swansea in screenprints.
You can find some of my work for sale on the Swansea Print Workshop website. There is a section of small affordable screenprints based on drawings of birds and insects combined with the human rubbish we throw away which endangers them. https://swanseaprintworkshop.org.uk/product-category/artist/rose-davies/
One of the Friends who nominated John Piper was Jean Williams. We were struck by the informative and poetic quality of her writing and we’re pleased to be able, with her kind permission, to publish the full text below:
The landscapes I have chosen are two companion pieces of Swansea by John Piper, each of which appeared in the outstanding Swansea Stories exhibition in 2019, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the the granting of city status to Swansea. The first landscape is an ink on paper print, titled Swansea Bay. It depicts a view of Swansea East illustrating the docks, the terraced houses of Kilvey Hill, the sweep of the bay with the cooling towers of the Baglan Bay chemical works in the mid distance. An image of Industrial Swansea recalling the past and present.
The companion piece is a gouache and watercolour painting titled South Wales View (Swansea West). The viewpoint is from Foxhole, in St. Thomas and looks towards the west of the city. Apart from the Bay itself, a noticeable feature is a large white building Alexandra House, in High Street. The work is dated c.1970s.
These images take me on journeys. Geographical journeys but also journeys into Welsh art and its patronage over the years. It is the The Swansea Bay image that initially is geographically evocative. It takes me back to going to school in Swansea by train in the mid 1950s. I am reminded of the journey through the Lower Swansea Valley, then a dark landscape of industrial dereliction, no trees, no grass, the Tawe a sludgy black. Then arriving at Swansea High Street Station, running over to the 74 bus stop outside the Central Library in Alexandra Rd to travel up to school in Walters Road. The two images also lead me to the significance of patronage for art in Wales. Swansea Bay was gifted to the Glynn Vivian by CASW. It had been purchased for CASW in 1988 by Brenda Bloxham founder of the Attic Gallery and in 1990 was gifted by CASW to the Glynn Vivian. CASW was founded in 1938 with the aim of purchasing and subsequently gifting works to public institutions in Wales. To date the Society has loaned or given over 900 works, the great majority by contemporary Welsh artists, to institutions all over Wales. The latest works, chosen by CASW purchaser Andrew Green, now President of the Friends, were gifted to the Glynn Vivian, Y Gaer Brecon and Plas Glyn Y Weddw in 2021. South Wales View (Swansea West) was purchased from Martin Tinney Gallery Cardiff in 2003. It was purchased thanks to the assistance of three organisations - The Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund; The Art Fund; and the Friends of the Gallery. My choices now take me geographically and artistically to Gregynog in Mid Wales. Gregynog, the Davies sisters, and the patronage of art in Wales needs no elaboration, but in addition to their art and music patronage, Gwendoline and Margaret set up the prestigious Gregynog Press. The two Swansea works appeared in a Gregynog Press limited edition publication Dylan Thomas, Deaths and Entrances edited by Walford Davies.
Published in 1984 it contained a colour frontispiece and seven double page colour plates by John Piper. In the Swansea images there is the reminder of Dylan’s Reminiscences of Childhood. I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War: an ugly, lovely town or so it was and is to me to me) crawling, sprawling ... by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. .......This sea-town was my world.. First broadcast: 15/02/1943, BBC Home Services I too am back in Swansea, reminiscing of my going to school on the train, and looking out over Swansea bay from the sixth form classroom window!
A poetic contribution by finding Swansea team member Anja Stenina’s father, Sergey Stenin (writing under the nom de plume, Zyo)
The original Russian version and English translation by the team below.
Sergey visited Swansea several years ago, so he was able to respond to the Swansea West painting with his memories in mind as well as his general and acquired knowledge of the area:
тени выплавленной меди А тени выплавленной меди Все догорают в небесах, Под ними домики-соседи Стыдливо прячутся в лесах, Небрежно море убегает, Чтоб снова быстро набежать, А образ Свонзи продолжает В заливе мокром чуть дрожать. Все так размыто, акварельно, Без четко заданных границ, Как я и дождик, мы - отдельно, Я - в нем, он - капелькой с ресниц. Зë Shadows of Smelted Copper And the shadows of smelted copper They smoulder in the sky, Beneath them the neighbourly terraces, Timidly hide in the woods, Carelessly the sea absconds, To overrun again, And the image of Swansea continues. Shivering a little in the wet bay. Everything is blurred, water colour, Without clearly defined boundaries, As myself and the rain, we are separate, I am inside it, it's a drop from my eyelash. Zyo